Do not make friends was not actually an explicit Rule, but it was implied by some of the others: do not do anything to draw attention to yourself and do not bring anyone to the house and do not stop anywhere between home and school. As a little kid, Kyle had thought his dad was a psychic. It was middle school before he realized that basically half the teachers in the school were just spying on him. It was high school before he realized they were doing it with the best of intentions, rather than entering into a vast conspiracy. Kyle has so much difficulty making friends and bullying has been such a problem in the past were enough to get progress reports on even the least important details of his life.
So if he got nervous talking to new people, maybe his reasons for it were more legit than most.
Michael Ramage had a whole cafeteria table to himself, thanks to the reputation he’d developed in less than a week: kicked out of his prior school—mean to people who talked to him—deep monotone voice like maybe he was autistic or retarded or whatever.
(Kyle was particularly partial to the “or whatever.” That was the category he fell into himself. Something-is-wrong-with-this-kid-but-nobody-knows-quite-what.)
That was what all the Rules were for. To fix him.
“Hi!” he said to Michael Ramage, like talking to people was totally normal, like it was a thing anybody could do.
Michael Ramage blinked at him. “Hi,” he said, after a moment. Kyle kept hovering there, plastic tray in hand.
“Can I sit down?”
Michael Ramage shrugged. “It’s a pretty big table.”
Kyle sat down across from him. “My name’s Kyle Eland,” he said. “We’re in English together.”
“Ramage,” said Michael Ramage, and Kyle immediately wished he’d thought to do that. It was cooler just having one name, right?
Of course it was cooler.
“You said ‘Kylie Land’?” Ramage repeated.
“No, uh, Kyle, one word. Eland, one word. And I just go by Kyle, not Eland,” he added. “Do you like it here?”
“Here?” Ramage asked. He had a packed lunch spread out in front of him, and his fingertips were stained orange with Cheeto dust. “Like school?”
It was very hard to be intimidated by a person with Cheeto-stained fingers, even if he had been kicked out of school for knocking a kid unconscious.
“Like the whole town,” said Kyle. “Not just school.”
Ramage shrugged again. “School’s terrible no matter where the fuck you are. Adamsville seems pretty terrible, too.”
Kyle nodded three times, then stopped in case that was too many nods. “Did you really get kicked out of school for putting somebody in the hospital?” he asked. Probably this would not work out—no friendship really had, in his experience. So it was best to get to the important things first. There wasn’t enough time for tact.
“Yup,” said Ramage. He finished the Cheetos and wiped his fingers on his jeans. The nonchalance of this gesture actually was a little bit intimidating, even though it involved Cheetos. Clean up the things you mess up was one of those Rules that seemed like it would be very easy to follow, but actually wasn’t.
“Like, why did you get into a fight?” Kyle asked. Around them, the other kids were loud, overwhelming white noise pierced occasionally by shrieks of laughter. He personally didn’t get into fights, though once in a while they happened to him anyway. Kyle had never “won.”
“We didn’t get into a fight,” said Ramage. “I read his mind a little bit and then got inside his brain and fucking wrote him out of it, because everything he was thinking about was shit.”
“Oh, okay,” said Kyle. This he could handle. It was comic book stuff, TV hero stuff. The kinds of scripts he’d already memorized, unlike regular human stuff, which never had scripts and only seemed easy. “Are you reading my mind right now?”
Ramage laughed, which didn’t seem like a comic book script, but also was not bad. He had a nice laugh. “No,” he said. “You’d know if I was reading your mind, because it hurts people when I do it. Like having your fingernails ripped out.”
“Yes,” said Kyle, nodding again. “Have you ever had your fingernails pulled out, though?”
“No!” Ramage laughed again. “Of course not.”
“I just asked because if you’re a mind reader than presumably your life is different than most people’s, and more exciting, so maybe that happened to you.” He realized the nodding had turned into head bobbing and stopped doing it. No head bobbing, like no friends, wasn’t explicit, but it makes you look like a crazy person, like you’re listening to music no one else can hear had been said more than once, which technically fell under do not draw attention to yourself anyway.
“Getting your fingernails ripped out is ‘exciting’?” Ramage asked. “Also, you just . . . believe me?”
“Yes,” said Kyle. “Also, I think being a mind reader is incredibly cool. Like going by just ‘Ramage’ is cool. Do you have a pair of aviator sunglasses? If not, you should get a pair.”
Ramage didn’t laugh again, but his smile seemed sincere. “You’re ridiculous,” he said.
“Yes,” said Kyle.
“Not in a bad way,” Ramage added. “It’s nice to have someone come over and sit next to me, actually.”
“Nobody thinks you want that,” Kyle explained. “Everyone thinks you’re mean.”
Ramage’s eyebrows quirked together. “I’ve only been here like a week.”
“I didn’t get an exact story about why you’re mean,” said Kyle. “I’m not really a person people ‘gossip’ with. You’d have to talk to them,” he gestured vaguely at the entire rest of the cafeteria, “ But that’s what people are saying.” He stabbed his plastic bag of chocolate milk and drained it entirely without stopping. Sometimes the lunch ladies gave him an extra milk, on account of being part of his dad’s spy network and believing the stuff about bullying and no friends, but today wasn’t one of those days.
“You should read my mind,” he said, when Ramage didn’t say anything else. Maybe you could figure out what’s wrong with me, he thought. Maybe you could fix it, and then I wouldn’t need the Rules.
But Ramage just frowned at him. “No, of course not,” he said. “I just told you that it hurts people when I do that. And I’m not—mean. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You just said you erased a kid’s brain because it was ‘shit,’” Kyle observed. “So . . .”
Ramage didn’t look amused anymore. “That was different,” he said sharply, packing the trash of his lunch into the insulated nylon lunch box he’d brought it in. He stood up and turned away, then turned back and looked at Kyle with a carefully neutral expression. “If you want to sit with me again tomorrow,” he decided. “That would be fine.”
Kyle watched him walk away.
Yes, he thought. That went better than expected.
• • • •
At home, Kyle waited until his father was asleep. He wasn’t allowed a clock in his room because there’s no need for you to know what time it is, I’ll tell you what it’s time for and of course the idea of having his own cellphone was a joke. So he drank too much water, and then brought a glass of water to bed, and when he woke up to pee the house was dark and quiet. Sometimes he could get in trouble for using the bathroom in the middle of the night, but not usually. He took the toenail clippers back into his bedroom with him, and threw a blanket over the lamp next to his bed, then turned it on. He pulled the blanket over his head and sat in a tent of light, then examined his toes.
The nail on his long toe had grown until it curved around the tip of his toe. It was white from the tip to more than halfway down the bed of the nail, but this seemed like a trick—cutting that low would probably still hurt. He slid the little nail cleaning file under his nail and lifted slightly. When that didn’t hurt, he kept lifting.
Apparently his toenail wasn’t trying to trick him after all; this part was as dead as it looked. He kept raising it until the pain finally kicked in, reassuringly sharp. Less than an inch of healthy pink was all that held the rest of that gross dead keratin in place.
Kyle put down the toenail clippers and took the long toenail in between his thumb and forefinger, tugging at it experimentally. Pain isn’t real wasn’t even a Rule, it was just an oft-stated fact. Pain is only real if your weakness makes it real. The problem was that Kyle was plenty weak, obviously, which his dad knew as well as he did.
For such a little bed, the nail seemed pretty solid. He took out the nail cleaning file again and slipped it underneath his toenail bed, pushing in until it hurt, then pushing just barely past the pain. After a moment he had to stop, less because it was actually unbearable than because he was grossing himself out. He clambered out of the blanket tent to stand up and shake out his shoulders and arms, willing his discomfort away. He’d thought, as a little kid, that might be a trick to use: banishing pain with movement. But it turned out that dancing the pain away was for girls and faggots, so mostly he’d tried to stop. Still, it sometimes happened. The head bobbing was related, he was pretty sure.
Then Kyle climbed back into the blanket tent and went to work, digging into the live part of the nail, trying in earnest to loosen it.
It was startling how much this hurt. Not pain you could dance or bob away. Pain that felt real.
He had to stop again, and this time he took a few long breaths, counting the length of each inhalation. He looked at the long toe on one foot, then the other, then compared this tiny part of his body to all the rest of his mass: legs and arms and fingers and face, all of it overwhelming compared to this one tiny splotch of himself. He shoved the file back in, and this time coupled with the pain was an interior protest: his spine jittered, and his revulsion was less a feeling than a physical need that could only be discharged by tossing the nail clippers on the bed and standing up, as if he could escape himself.
He thought he heard a shift elsewhere in the house, and quickly clicked off the lamp. He let time pass; what felt like long minutes, five, ten, though it was impossible to tell.
If he tried to do this a little bit at a time, he’d just nickel and dime his resolve until he had a sore toe and nothing to show for it.
Leaving the lamp off, Kyle crept through the hall and down the stairs, to where his dad kept a pair of pliers.
• • • •
The next day it rained, so the cafeteria smelled like wet dog on top of its usual smells of canned vegetables and disinfectant.
“This is for you,” said Kyle, putting his toenail down on the cafeteria table next to Ramage’s sandwich. He’d been of two minds about the blood: did it make him look tough, or like he was trying to look tough? In the end he’d washed it off so it wouldn’t be gross for lunch.
“What the fuck is that?” asked Ramage.
“You said,” said Kyle, and swallowed. “You said reading someone’s mind was like having your fingernails ripped out. And I couldn’t rip out a fingernail, because that would look weird. But here’s my toenail instead. I wanted you to know that I’m not afraid of pain.”
And it did hurt, not just in the doing of it, but now, still, so that he limped with every step.
“Jesus,” said Ramage, very softly. “Dude, what’s wrong with you?”
And of course it hadn’t worked, of course it hadn’t, and Kyle felt stupid that he’d even tried. He didn’t answer—couldn’t answer—couldn’t explain I don’t know, no one does, so he just crossed the cafeteria without getting lunch and went to sit alone in a bathroom stall, where it was quiet. Kylie Land, he thought. A place where all the Kyles go. A place where we’re the normal ones, and we’re together, and it’s everyone else who’s wrong and alone.
• • • •
Hannah Hesselink was hanging around outside when the bus dropped Kyle off at home.
“What’s wrong with your foot?” she asked.
“Nothing.” Kyle looked past her, trying to make her disappear. She was standing between him and his house, and this was a trick. Hannah was two years younger than him, and a girl. He could not shove her to get past without looking like a bully, and if he ran away, everyone on the bus would see.
Besides, he didn’t feel like running anywhere on his stupid foot.
“Looks like something,” she said, stepping forward. “Baby Kyle hurt his little footy?”
“No,” he said.
“Lemme see,” she ordered.
Kyle looked down at the ground. He felt smaller than Hannah, even kind of wished he was smaller, so that this encounter wouldn’t feel so lopsided.
“What kind of weirdo wants to see another kid’s smelly foot?” asked a different voice, and Kyle opened his eyes to see Ramage step off the bus.
Hannah frowned. “I didn’t—” she started.
“What are you?” Ramage asked. “Like, into feet? Do you have a crush on Kyle?”
“No!” Hannah turned red. “That’s not even—like, who are you?”
“Fuck off home,” said Ramage, restoring order to the universe, so that a girl in middle school was suddenly afraid of two teenagers.
“That’s a superpower,” said Kyle, turning his eyes back to the grass.
“What is?” Ramage asked.
“Making things normal. Knowing what to say so that people will leave you alone, or do what you want.” He blinked and looked up, forcing himself to make eye contact with Ramage. “Did you know how to do it by reading her mind?”
“No, man.” Ramage looked sad and bewildered and apologetic—too many expressions for one face, too many things to feel at one time.
“You don’t live here,” Kyle added.
“No,” said Ramage again. “I, uh, followed you after school. Because I felt bad.” He pointed at Kyle’s house. “Can we go in?”
Kyle swallowed. “I’m not allowed to have anyone over.”
“Why? You grounded?”
“Ever. I’m not allowed to have anyone over ever.”
Ramage wrinkled his nose. “Weird. Are your parents home?”
“It’s just my dad. And no.”
“Okay then.” Ramage walked up to the locked door and tried the handle, then turned to Kyle. “So lemme in and I’ll leave before he gets home.”
Kyle unlocked the door. He wondered if he should feel something about having someone else in his house, which hadn’t happened since before his mom died. But it was . . . fine. He flicked on a light because his dad kept the living room curtains drawn even in the daytime. The big heavy sofa and chairs, with the leather arms and base and dark paisley cushions, still looked new, because first his mom and then his dad had said they were too expensive to use except for company.
Well, Ramage was company.
“You can sit down if you want,” said Kyle, throwing his backpack into a chair like that was something he did every day.
Ramage sat on the big sofa, then almost immediately began to sprawl. “Do you have any soda?” he asked.
“No.” Kyle sat on the same chair as his backpack, then moved his backpack to the floor when he realized it was taking up more space than he was.
“Okay, well, next time you can come to my house. We have Pepsi there.”
“I like Pepsi.”
That made Ramage laugh. “Yeah, of course you do. Everybody likes soda.”
In the silence that followed it occurred to Kyle that maybe there should be music, but he hadn’t worked the ancient CD player in years, and he was sure all his mom’s old CDs were the wrong kind of music anyway.
“So why do you want me to read your mind so bad?” Ramage asked. “Especially after I told you it would hurt, and that I could fucking ruin a dude.”
“So you can tell me the thing that’s wrong with me,” said Kyle. “To get it fixed. So I can have the superpower everybody else has, where people listen to me.”
Ramage frowned. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “Even if something is wrong with you, I can’t fix it.”
“Just give it a name,” said Kyle. “So I can google it. So I can get books at the library. So I can figure out how to do things without all the Rules.” So I can show my dad that I’m real, he thought, but, even in this delirium of possibility, had the sense not to say.
Ramage was wearing that expression again. The too-many-things-all-at-once look on his face. “I can try it, dude. But you won’t like it.”
Kyle closed his eyes. “I don’t have to like it. It just has to work.”
“Okay,” said Ramage. For a moment, nothing changed. The living room smelled dusty, and he could faintly hear the sound of a little kid shrieking outside.
Then, abruptly, he was unalone.
When his mom was still alive, before everything started going wrong, he and Elizabeth Gunty had gotten “married” one summer, with her wearing one of her mom’s long white nightgowns and he in a goofy hat of his father’s. The adults had all laughed and taken pictures, but he still remembered the feel of Elizabeth’s warm sweaty hand in his, the way everyone had been smiling and looking at them and the warm linger of twilight as if night would never come. Ever since then, he’d wanted to someday get married. It was the least alone he’d ever felt.
Until this, the bare pressure of someone else inside his skull, looking at all of his thoughts and seeing them for what they were. Ramage felt exactly how he looked: like a kid with Cheeto-stained fingers, like someone who still used “fuck” a little bit awkwardly. But he also loomed larger than this. He was like an eclipse, like going deep enough under water to hide the sun.
Kyle took one shaky breath, and across the room heard Ramage inhale in unison.
“Are you—” he said, or thought, but then dropped the sentence. It wasn’t mind control. He just felt that Ramage couldn’t talk right now, or didn’t want to, and knowing that made conversation seem irrelevant. If he closed his eyes, he could concentrate on exactly what Ramage was doing. His own thoughts were like a distant slideshow, words and images and memories and even feelings, the whole morass impossible to articulate and embarrassing to revisit. But he didn’t want to concentrate on what Ramage was doing, and, to his surprise, it was easy to ignore. Instead he looked at their shadows against the wallpaper, the paisley print of the couch. Then, with no small amount of delight, he realized that Ramage’s shadow was wrong. Then, even more delightful: he recognized that shadow. Ramage’s shadow had turned into his own, so that there were two dark silhouettes of Kyle against the wall.
He laughed, and then abruptly he was alone again.
Ramage was breathing hard, his face and neck sweaty.
“I really wish you had soda here,” he said at last. Kyle went into the kitchen and retrieved a glass of tap water instead. His foot ached as he put weight on it, but there was no pain in his head.
“So, uh,” he said, as he handed Ramage the water. “My brain wasn’t erased, I don’t think.”
“Yeah, no,” said Ramage. “I guess not.” He drained the water and was quiet for a moment, his only movement the blink of his eyes.
“Well?” said Kyle finally. “How was it? Did you figure out what’s wrong with me?”
“Literally nothing is wrong with you,” said Ramage impatiently.
“Oh.” That was one of those nice things that was actually a trick. If Ramage had told him what was wrong, it could be fixed. But if there was “nothing” to fix then there was nothing to change, and his life was just this, still. Forever.
“Your, uh, situation, though,” said Ramage. “Like, you know this is fucked up, right?”
Kyle shrugged one shoulder.
“Not, like you’re fucked up. Like your dad is. All these rules. That shit is real not-okay.”
Kyle just stared at him.
“I’m not saying he’s abusing you,” said Ramage, “because I guess you’re not getting smacked around or whatever. But all this weird shit—this isolation, this constant telling you how wrong you are, this pervasive nastiness. This is not normal, dude. And it’s not okay.”
“Um, oh,” said Kyle.
“Look, I gotta get out of here before your dad gets home,” said Ramage, sliding off the couch. In his voice there was a hint of the apprehension that Kyle so often felt about his father, and this was reassuring. Ramage had seen what he had seen, and felt the wormy anxiety that he’d felt, and he was still saying that Kyle wasn’t the problem.
He was still unalone.
“We’ll talk,” said Ramage. “Tomorrow, at school. Things aren’t okay now, but they will be.” He stopped at the door and turned to face Kyle. “Do you believe me?”
“Yeah,” he said. No, he thought. And he wondered which one Ramage heard.
• • • •
By Ramage’s third week at school, he essentially had an entire cafeteria table reserved for his use. It seemed like an honorific, instead of the way Kyle had always felt his own isolation as punishment.
But it meant they always had a place to be, and relative privacy, since no one cared to eavesdrop on two outcasts, even when they were surrounded by people. Kyle could sit down at the table and close his eyes and know that he was waiting for someone, instead of just interminably waiting.
“What’s going on in Kylie Land?” Ramage asked, thumping his nylon lunch box down on the table.
“Nothing,” said Kyle. “Kylie Land is a peaceful desert kingdom where nothing grows and nothing dies.”
“Weird.” Ramage unzipped his lunch and pulled out three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fanning them out in front of him. “Good weird,” he added. “Like, quirky, not wrong.”
“Cool.” Kyle bobbed his head a few times, then stopped, then, when it seemed that Ramage either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care, went back to bobbing. The familiarity of the motion was comfortable, and made it easier to speak. “So you know how it’s kind of insane that you’ve read my mind?”
Ramage shrugged, mouth full of sandwich.
“And a little bit unfair, since I can’t read yours?”
“Nu-uh,” said Ramage, not bothering to swallow first. “No way. You fuckin’ begged me to read your mind, don’t act like I was the one who was out of line—”
“That’s not an accusation, it’s a statement.” Kyle swung out his hand and drew out the word “statement,” side-eyeing Ramage to see if this gesture made an impression. “And I thought of a way to make it less unfair.”
“Oh,” said Ramage in a monotone. “You want something. I get it.”
“No! But also yes. But in a good way.” Kyle looked down at Ramage’s two remaining sandwiches. “Tell me about the guy you deleted.”
Ramage curled his lip.
“It’s like the old-fashioned version of mind-reading,” Kyle said. “You just, uh, tell me something, and then I know it.”
“He was just a guy. A bad guy. So I took care of it.”
“Okay . . . but, who was he?”
“A guy in my class.” Ramage looked at the raucous kids who surrounded them, all of them eating and laughing and talking at maximum volume. The two of them were an island of tense quiet.
“I’ve been thinking a lot, actually,” said Ramage. “About why reading your mind didn’t hurt you, and reading his did. And I think it’s pretty simple—do you want me in your head? And you did, so it was fine. And he didn’t, so it hurt. Normally when I read people it’s just surface-level bullshit to make my life easier. And the worst that ever does is give them headaches, or it used to make Mrs. McMurran’s eczema flair up, which was weird.”
“Who was Mrs. McMurran?”
“My second grade teacher. Which, you know. It wasn’t like I didn’t know I was reading people’s minds. But also, at that age . . . I dunno. I was a better person, maybe, or a more innocent one. It took me a long time to figure out, and now I don’t do it a whole lot anymore.”
“Because you hurt people.”
Ramage laughed. “No, because it’s just fucking terrible to learn more about people than they want you to know. Everyone’s a shitshow, Kyle. Everyone’s petty and angry and cruel, and everyone does good things too, but it’s basically for the better that we advertise our best actions and try to forget about our worst. No one’s really, uh, likable.”
“So you don’t like me anymore, now that you read my mind?”
“No.” Ramage looked surprised to have this pointed out. “I still do, actually. You’re not, like, better than most people, you’re just . . .” he trailed off. “Never mind.” He closed his eyes, inhaled, and held the breath for a long moment. “I wrote that guy out because he liked hurting people, okay? That’s all.”
“He was a bad guy.”
Ramage laughed a little bit. “Okay, yeah, sure. It’s not . . .” he sobered up quickly. “It’s not like he was a serial killer or anything. He wasn’t torturing pets. He just . . . I dunno how to explain it. Like, do you believe in god?”
“Well, what if you did, and you thought we were all going to be judged at the end of our lives, to measure out how much we’d hurt other people and how much we’d helped them? Because I can do that.”
“You can be god?”
“No.” Ramage shook his head and sighed. “I can just . . . It’s like I know the weight of your life, when I read your mind. And the weight of his life was just . . . shit. Like, how many times can you insult someone before it’s too many? How many people can you punch or shove or hit and then act like you were ‘just joking’ and make fun of them for getting upset? How many times can you get off on making someone else feel like shit on the internet while telling them the internet isn’t real so it doesn’t count? It wasn’t that he was evil, just that he was fucking worthless, and I was so mad at that exact moment that I wanted there to be one less worthless thing on the face of the world, and then . . . there was.”
Ramage looked Kyle in the eye, and his voice and face were carefully blank.
“I wasn’t trying to fuck him up so bad. But we’d known each other since kindergarten, and I wasn’t sorry. So now I’m gonna spend the rest of my fucking life trying as hard as I can to be more than worthless, and no clue if I’ll ever make it.”
“Because you can’t read your own mind,” said Kyle.
“Yeah.” Ramage finally picked up one of his other sandwiches and bit into it.
“Was I?” Kyle asked. “Worthless? Or bad?”
“You were just . . .” Ramage put the sandwich down again. “I’m not trying to be mean, but you’re kind of a blank slate. Not really hurting anyone, but not helping either. Just trying to keep your head down and make it out. You’ve had a light touch on the world so far.”
“But I was nice to you,” said Kyle.
“Yeah,” said Ramage, looking down at his sandwich. “You were.”
• • • •
It wasn’t so much that Ramage was still reading Kyle’s mind after that first time. It was just that, having once been so familiar with its processes, he was a pretty accurate guesser about what Kyle was thinking next about any particular thing.
And what he was thinking next was: are my dad’s rules there to help me? Or are they worthless?
“I’d have to read his mind to know for sure,” said Ramage. “Obviously. And he won’t like it, so it’ll hurt him, which means it will also hurt me a little bit, because I’ll be in there. And if he is worthless, then what? Because I’m not frying anybody again. You’ll just know all this was for nothing, and is that really what you fucking want?”
All these words burst out of him, not so much rehearsed as furiously ruminated upon, and it made Kyle feel better to know that he wasn’t the only person who lay awake at night, practicing arguments that never came out the way he’d thought they would.
“Are you afraid to do it?” asked Kyle.
“Oh, go fuck yourself,” Ramage snapped.
Kyle was quiet a moment. It was hard to think about, still. That the Rules were not there for his sake, because he was a fuck-up who needed to be fixed, but for some other reason, inscrutable to him. It was something too good to be true, and also too terrible.
“You don’t have to fry him. You don’t have to do anything. I’ll just run away.”
They were sitting outside, leaving butt prints in the pale coating of green pollen covering Ramage’s porch swing. It was too hot for April, but spring was so welcome that Kyle didn’t mind the eighty-degree weather. His cargo shorts had gotten too short for him over the winter, but he wore them anyway, something Hannah Hesselink had been quick to notice.
“Yeah,” said Ramage. “You’d make a great runaway.”
“Uh, a mind reader would make a great runaway. We could go anywhere, and do anything.”
Ramage shook his head. “I like my family,” he said. “Adamsville sucks, but not more than homelessness.”
“Depends on the home,” said Kyle, and Ramage’s face twisted a little bit.
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “I’ll read your dad.”
• • • •
They were waiting for Kyle’s dad when he got home from work, backpacks and bodies splayed across the dark paisley couches. Ramage had brought a six-pack of Pepsi, and the cans left little wet rings on the coffee table, clean up the things you mess up be damned.
“What the fuck is this?” asked Kyle’s dad, more stunned than angry, at least for the moment.
“This is Michael Ramage,” said Kyle, just for something to do. He felt hopped up on sugar and caffeine and fear, even more nervous than when Ramage had read his mind.
“I don’t give a—” Kyle’s dad began, and then stopped. His mouth warped into an unfamiliar shape, and his eyes were wide. Ramage’s shadow grew, his messy hair retracting into Kyle’s father’s crew cut. Kyle stood on the balls of his feet, caught between wanting to run or hide, but also wanting to yell. He felt important, seeing his father so still. Even Ramage’s sweaty, nauseous face couldn’t ease that power into guilt.
“Well?” Kyle asked. He didn’t know how long the process had taken with his own mind, and it was a very different thing to watch happen to someone else. Ramage didn’t answer, and, at a loss, Kyle picked up his backpack and shifted it onto his shoulders. It was already full of clothes, with all the cash his father kept in a cardboard Hot Pockets box in the freezer—the origin of none of the food in this house is for you unless I say it is, maybe. It would be easy to put everything back after this was done, if putting it back seemed like the right thing to do.
Kyle’s father and Ramage both dropped to their knees at the same time, like one of them was a marionette, but Kyle didn’t know which.
Ramage found his feet first.
“Fuck this,” he said. “You can’t just—fuck you.”
“What was it?” Kyle asked.
Ramage blinked, and Kyle snapped open one of the soda cans and handed it to him.
“It’s like he doesn’t know that other people are real. Like, really truly doesn’t know. Everything in his head is just him.” Ramage drained the Pepsi.
“No. He’s fine.” Ramage paused. “Will be fine,” he amended. Kyle’s father still hadn’t moved. He just kneeled there, expression a distant echo, eyes as empty as they’d ever been.
“He was never trying to hurt you,” Ramage said slowly. “For what that’s worth.”
“But he doesn’t . . .” Kyle’s voice was low and choked, as he pulled out words so embarrassing he tried usually to not even think them. “Does he love me?”
“His head’s not normal,” said Ramage. “Like, when you were little, and you cried. It didn’t matter that you were sad. He just wanted the noise to stop.” Ramage chewed on his own lip. He looked very tired, and very young. “He likes you more when you follow the rules,” he said quietly.
He was trying, Kyle could tell. He wanted to find one good thing to say, and that was as close as he could get.
“Okay,” said Kyle. “That’s fine. That’s fine, then. I’m leaving, and I need you to do me a favor. Change it so that no one will look for me. Write me out of the world.”
“That’s a fucking terrible idea.”
“Change it,” said Kyle, swallowing a howl, but Ramage flinched as though he’d heard it anyway. His shadow flickered, recognizable for another moment as Kyle’s father’s, then pinwheeling through shapes too fast to follow—teachers, peers, neighbors, the bus driver—until the living room was too dim for shadows to be visible at all. Kyle’s father held perfectly still, but Kyle wasn’t tempted to go to him.
“You’re not erased,” said Ramage finally. In the evening gloom he looked like a corpse: clammy, with sunken eyes, his mouth a flat, chapped line. “Like, I can’t delete your goddamn birth certificate. But you’re slippery, now. People will forget about you unless something reminds them. And it’s not everybody—it’ll take me a long-ass time to get everybody. But if you run now, it’ll be some time before anybody looks for you. And I can keep rooting you out, keep making it harder.”
“That hurt you to do,” said Kyle softly.
Ramage looked away. “It wasn’t great.”
“Nobody ever.” Kyle swallowed. He wanted to touch Ramage, to hug him, to do a thing that people on TV would do.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered instead.
Ramage slung one arm over his shoulder. Ramage’s skin was damp, the weight of him heavy. “Just . . . I dunno. Good luck, okay?”
Kyle embraced him, almost lifting Ramage off his feet before pulling away. He took a deep breath and opened the front door. For once he didn’t want to bob his head.
“Come find me someday,” he whispered, gesturing out at the wide world. “You’re the only person I don’t want to forget who I am.” The weight of his backpack on his shoulders felt good. Outside, the night was warm. It was spring.
Kylie Land was an undiscovered country, and he was the only person in the world who could find it.